Terra Formars isn’t going to change the landscape of cinema forever (sorry, couldn’t resist the obvious terraforming pun), but it’s enjoyably ridiculous viewing.
Screening as part of the Japanese Film Festival in Australia, Terra Formars is based on the manga series of the same name by Yu Sasuga and Kenichi Tachibana, and directed by cult filmmaker Takashi Miike (13 Assassins).
Here’s the exposition: In an attempt to colonise Mars, Japanese scientists send a bunch of algae and cockroaches to the surface of the planet circa 2097, to purify the atmosphere and make it habitable for human life. They leave those dirty, inexplicably hated, shiny exoskeleton-ed insects to do their thing… But, when 500 years later the first maned mission to Mars loses contact with Earth, a second ship is sent to investigate.
And who better to crew this second ship than a ragtag crew of criminals seeking a better life? Among them are Shokichi (Hideaki Ito) and Nanao (Emi Takei), young lovers from the wrong side of the tracks, who we first see sprinting through what looks like a scene from Blade Runner with futuristic police in hot pursuit. But once they are captured, the mysterious figure Honda (Shun Oguri) – a mad scientist of sorts – proposes a deal. Instead of jail time, they are to join the BUGS 2 mission and travel to Mars.
The purpose of BUGS 2 is pest control. They are there, ostensibly, to exterminate the cockroaches while wearing some Stormtrooper-style suits.
But this is sci-fi with a strong dose of camp, so of course there’s a problem. And it’s a big one. In the intervening years, those cockroaches on Mars have evolved into hulking, humanoid, human-killing machines. You thought you hated cockroaches when they couldn’t actually do anything to hurt you, but you could hear them scuttling around your bedroom at night? Wait until you meet the cockroaches whose creepy, soulless black bug-eyes can stare right into yours.
It’s man v. bug in this B-grade, schlocky, kitschy, cartoonish-ly violent flick. Or, to be more precise, it’s bug-man v. man-bug.
Because just as the cockroaches on Mars have evolved to take on human qualities and characteristics, our flamboyant evil genius Honda – and his assistant, Arrow’s Rila Fukushima – have equipped the crew of BUGS 2 with injectable bug genome guns. These will cause the characters to temporarily mutate and take on insect qualities to help them fight the cockroach hordes.
This is where the pace of the film really picks up. Up until this point, it’s all obvious exposition and thinly fleshed-out characters. But you don’t need your characters to be very meaty, when their actual purpose is just to turn into manga-style superheroes with some truly hilarious, ridiculous and grotesque bug powers. Terra Formars also provides on the infotainment front, and each bug transformation is accompanied by some fun creepy-crawly facts to explain the mutation.
You are either going to enjoy this film for the hot mess that it is – or not at all. If the idea of a literal tidal wave of man-sized cockroaches doesn’t sound appealing, Terra Formars is not for you.
The film oscillates between giving the audience stylish sci-fi, slapstick humour, and gratuitous ultra-violence. The problem isn’t that this blend is confusing; the problem is that ultimately we don’t get enough of any of it. Terra Formars needed more classic sci-fi suspense, AND more ridiculous bug powers and overt humour, AND a lot more exploding cockroach brains.
Personally, I feel like Shun Oguri as Honda is the actor who ‘gets’ the potential of the film. He is so over-the-top that he becomes a caricature of a caricature of an eccentric, mad scientist in flamboyant jackets. This is exactly what a villain should be, in a film where one of our heroes is a psychopath who develops the ability to burp flaming flatulence out of his mouth (it’s apparently a bug thing).
While Terra Formars isn’t quite as successful as, say, 2009’s Dead Snow in blending camp, suspense, and blood and guts, you’ve got to admit – it’s satisfying seeing cockroaches get crushed.